Invisible Privilege

Last week I finished reading Jodi Piccoult’s book, Small Great Things. I set it aside several times, pausing to read other books that were less disruptive. The book centers on the relationship between two ordinary women – Ruth Jefferson, a black nurse on trial for the death of a baby in her care (a baby whose parents are white supremacists), and Kennedy McQuarrie, the white public defender seeking Ruth’s acquittal.

As horrifying as it was to read about the violence and hatred of white nationalist subculture, I comforted myself with the belief that at least I wasn’t racist like them. While racism in this extreme form certainly exists today, as evidenced by incidents like last summer’s Charlottesville riot, for me, the most disturbing form of racism Piccoult addressed was seen in the everyday occurrences many of us don’t want to believe are real.

Sociologist Peggy McIntosh named this more covert form of racism “white privilege.” She writes, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”

The last part of that statement really got to me, naming the reality that I, as a white woman, have been conditioned to ignore the inequalities in a system that grants me advantages and places others who are not white at a disadvantage.

The difficult truth is that I participate in and benefit from systemic racism every single day.

Feeling compelled to educate myself more on these disturbing ideas, I spent the next few days reading about racism and prejudice, took several versions of implicit bias tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit and began rethinking my own experiences. The defensive part of me wanted to protest that my family has been intentional in welcoming and loving others not like us: our son, daughter-in-law, and beautiful grandchildren are as dark black as we are pale white. Our decision to become foster parents came from a desire to give our children a more expansive definition of love. We wanted to provide safety and nurture for refugees who’d been harmed and displaced as a result of war in their native Sudan.

18 years later, I would tell you that our desire was good, and it was also naïve. We thought that if we provided a safe home and family for these boys who had experienced profound trauma, it would be enough…and it was, for a time. There was a brief window when Samuel and James told us they felt like they were in heaven. Eventually, the reality of cultural differences, challenges with education, and the tension of living in a place they didn’t fully belong all became too much. Then we heard that America was hell, and that we’d brought them here to be our slaves.

Chris and I spent countless hours in frustrating conversations where they expressed nothing but criticism and disillusionment. I remember saying at the end of one of those particularly long talks something to the effect of “You aren’t in Africa anymore, you’re in America…so you’re going to have to learn to do things the way we do them here.”

It’s painful to admit that yes, I really did say that; I really did believe they should be more grateful for the opportunities we’d given them for a better life. While I do believe that experience changed our family in profound ways, moving us several clicks forward from the overtly prejudiced culture I grew up in, I’m also aware of how far there is yet to go.

I am ashamed to admit that as a wealthy, white, middle-aged woman, it’s been easier to play the part of benevolent savior than to simply listen to the experiences of black women, or risk uncomfortable conversations with other white women about the ways we benefit from our privileged position. With that privilege comes power, and this week, I’ve been reminded of the importance of using the power I have for good – even if I didn’t ask for it.

Will you join me?

If you’re not sure where to start, check out the bias tests at Project Implicit to learn objective facts about your biases, free of judgment.

Also, read Peggy McIntosh’s paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”The text contains a wealth of insight and numerous examples of how white privilege impacts everyday settings and includes effective conversation starters for group settings, some of which would be perfect around a Red Tent Dinner table.

For further reading, check out the books America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis and White Like Me by Tim Wise.

Learn more about how you can actively pursue racial unity at Be The Bridge.


Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.